Pat Metheny Unity Band Live Review

Pat Metheny Unity Band & Bruce Hornsby
Longwood Gardens August 7, 2014

Pat metheny Unity GroupIt takes some ability, a sense of authority and command of your audience, and some deep understanding to turn a show around 180 degrees in mood and intent. Pat Metheny exhibited all of that last night when he played the outdoor theatre at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. It was a double bill of Metheny’s Unity Group and Bruce Hornsby a pairing that turned out to be a meeting of Picasso and Peanuts. Although there was obvious camaraderie between the musicians, their performances could not have been more different.

Hornsby opened the show playing dulcimer and was quickly joined by Metheny on acoustic guitar performing a trio of original hillbilly tunes and goofed-on traditionals. When did Bruce Hornsby turn into a novelty act?  He Bruce Hornsby moved into the formal part of his set playing piano and performing in a style somewhere between Mose Allison and a lounge act, with glib songs and lyrics including a funny riff about pharmaceutical drugs called “Life in the Psychotropics” that was full of punny laugh lines. “Suffered with depression/Zoloft’s the road back home/in need of some regression/Xanax – that’s a palindrome…Now I’m poppin’ Vicodin/hooked on my narcotics/pain relieves no mortal sin/I could be hooked on phonics.” Playing piano and joined only by drummer Sonny Emory, Hornsby mixed humor with Webern in playfully fractured solos. The mood was all light and frivolous, even off-handed, right up to his alliterative intro of Pat Metheny.

pat-metheny-unity-group-kinTurning 60 in four days (August 12), Metheny still looks like the boyish firebrand of the Pat Metheny Group circa 1980  with his trademark hair now mountain man shaggy and colored an ever-young brown. He shows no signs of slowing down and no diminution in his sense of adventure with the kind of transcendent flights you heard from John Coltrane, a seemingly never-ending font of melodic invention.

Sitting down with his Pikasso guitar, a custom instrument with 42 strings, a sort of hyper-harp guitar koto, Metheny shifted the mood from comedy to contemplation. Accompanied by loudly chirping crickets, Metheny unfolded an introspective alap of mood, tapping directly into his surroundings in a beautifully crafted improvisation that seemed to have themes from As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls – his 1981 collaboration with Lyle Mays – embedded in it. As Metheny unleashed harp glissandos, Chris Potter came out with a bass clarinet soliloquy over the Pikasso drone of a modal bass line as they slipped into “Come and See.” The full Unity Band emerged with Antonio Sanchez on drums, Ben Williams playing mostly string bass and a strangely buried Guilio Carmassi playing keyboards almost off the back of the stage. The band proceeded to assay music from their recent album, Kin, songs by Ornette Coleman and the Pat Metheny Group’s “Are You Going with Me” which included Metheny’s now patented synth-guitar solo.

Metheny OrchestionAfter a couple of songs black shrouds are pulled from hulking objects around the stage to reveal a stripped down, but still large version of The Orchestrion. That’s Metheny’s Rube Goldberg contraption where vibes, xylophone, blown bottles and percussive sundries are played mechanically. Sometimes it’s triggered by Metheny’s guitar, sometimes by Carmassi and sometimes they seemed to be running on a program. For all its acousticness, the effect was very electronic, from the synth like textures of the bottles to the mechanistic grooves of the percussion. But it all merged seamlessly with the ensemble, adding unexpected colors and textures.

Metheny bookended his set with a solo acoustic guitar improvisation. It would’ve been the perfect ending as his last reverbed note faded into the chirping crickets. But then Hornsby came out for a rambunctious romp through his hit, “The Way It Is” with Metheny and band happily in tow.

John Diliberto